Offbeat Car-Related Collections

Unique collections – and the people who own them

Some people collect coins. Others collect stamps. Still others collect spoons or rocks or napkins or doorknobs – or a multitude of other quirky objects. Advance Auto Parts, though, went in search of people who have collections that are related to cars that are both offbeat and interesting.

We decided to focus on three of the most intriguing, each quite different and unique:

  • The first is an international repurposing project that is turning 1,041 rusty old hubcaps into incredible museum-quality pieces of art.
  • The second reveals a lifelong love of a highly underrated car part: the spark plug.
  • The third one – well, if you’re super squeamish, proceed with caution.

Metal canvases: recycling hubcaps into fine art

“I have found that the fine artists I have worked with on this project do not even flinch when looking at this white round disc of metal canvas. And why should they. Artists from the beginning of time have used cave walls (Lascaux, France and Altamira, Spain), walls of pyramids (Egyptians), animal skins (American Indians), etc… as their canvas.” (Ken Marquis, LandfillArt founder)

Ken Marquis, the genius behind the idea of hubcap art, says that he had a “Eureka! moment” five years ago while attending a car show in Pennsylvania. He had picked up a rusty old hubcap and suddenly imagined it serving as a canvas for a beautiful piece of art. That day, he was able to get 41 hubcaps from the 1930s through the 1970s for $2 each. Three weeks later, he obtained 1,000 more hubcaps; so, the “magic number” of artists and art projects needed was set at 1,041.

This meant that Ken needed to find 1,041 artists who were willing to take a cleaned and primed hubcap and transform their discs of metal into stunning pieces of art. “Fortunately,” Ken says, “I’ve been an art dealer for 40 years and am heavily involved in the art community with lots of artist friends. So, I decided to first knock on the doors of friends of mine and ask them to repurpose a metal disc into great art.”

When the first two or three pieces came back, looking spectacular, Ken realized that “this project could become something quite special” and so he knocked on more doors; created a 501(c)(3) organization; built a website; and then spent a substantial amount of time looking for artists “who might embrace this project.”

Fast forwarding to today, Ken now has more than 950 pieces of completed art; once he has all 1,041 pieces, he will have one or more from every state in the country and from 52 countries from around the world, creating what Ken calls “the largest artist initiative ever achieved.”

The majority of the artists have used oil or acrylic paint to create art, but others craft the metal into sculptures or weave, glue, screw or weld other materials onto the hubcap to create something brand new and eye-catching. “Each has a unique creative edge and style as each artist views a hubcap through a different set of eyes. Some incorporate only part of the hubcap or several pieces of the hubcap, while another incorporates multiple hubcaps. The largest piece of art weighs more than 6,000 pounds and is more than seven feet tall.”

The response from artists was quite positive. “Many of them hadn’t worked in the round before or hadn’t worked on metal or hadn’t used hubcaps as a canvas. But they enjoy being creative with something new and unfamiliar. They enjoy the challenge. They also like how environmentally friendly this project is. It’s really the perfect recycling/reclamation art project.”

And, where are all of these pieces of art?

“The good news,” Ken says, “is that for the time being, I have room to store them in a heated second floor with lots of wall space. This collection is not officially open to the public but I occasionally take people to see the art.” For those of us not lucky enough to receive a personal invite, a photo of each hubcap is posted on the site.

Ken will be writing a book about the project, and the book will contain a professional photo of each hubcap. There will also be a traveling show so that more people can see the art. His first museum stop will be in September 2014 at an “astute, well established museum, not located in New York but located east of the Mississippi.” Ken couldn’t tell us any more since the museum itself wants to break the news. The exhibit, containing 250 to 300 pieces of hubcap art, will hang in the museum for six months.

Not bad for a project that started with one crazy Eureka! moment . . .

Car swap meet sparks a lifelong interest

When Ed Laginess was eight or nine years old, he attended a car swap meet with his father and helped him hunt for needed parts. While there, young Ed spotted some spark plugs in a box; since they were only 25 cents apiece, he bought a few.

At another swap meet, he bought a few more – and then a few more. “Before I knew it,” Ed says, “I had 2,000 different spark plugs.”

Not surprisingly, he ended up joining the Spark Plug Collectors of America, Inc., the not-for-profit international organization created in 1975 for the “promotion of spark plug collecting, the research and preservation of spark plug history, the exchange of information and spark plugs, and fostering fellowship among club members worldwide.”

“Through this club,” Ed says, “I now have friends from all over the world, and I trade, buy from and sell to them.” He estimates that there are 400 to 500 club members, adding that there are many more collectors who have not yet joined the club. “If you name a country,” he adds, “there is probably a collector there.” Most club members, though, live in the United States, Europe or Australia.

By now, you’re probably wondering what we were wondering: what is the fascination with spark plugs? “Back when cars were a newer idea,” Ed explains, “everyone tried to outdo one another when they created spark plugs. There were hundreds and hundreds of brands to choose from with more than 1,000 car manufacturers at the time.”

Some of the coolest spark plugs, Ed says, include those that:

  • have a 24k gold base so that the spark plug will last the lifetime of the vehicle
  • have a little glass window so that you can see the sparks
  • are made of colorful porcelain, sometimes jewel-toned, multi-colored and “pretty fancy”
  • have brass bases
  • have handles on them so that they could be cleaned and reused
  • contain pictures, such as one of a lady dressed in red white and blue in 1700s-style clothing
  • feature fancy logos

Then there are the ones with “weird funky looking electrodes, floating balls or spinning fans. You know. Nutty stuff.”

Values range, Ed says, from about 50 cents apiece to about $2,000 (really? wow).

Early cars, of course, did not even have spark plugs. Instead, the internal combustion engines from the 19th century relied upon complicated and erratic flame and igniter ignitions. According to Gas Engine Magazine, the first spark plug probably originated in France with a ruby mica insulator, a brass body and the markings of “A.E.C.” A mystery! Nobody seems to know what those letters represent but the birth of the spark plug clearly foretold the death of the igniter.

By the early 1900s, more than 5,000 different brands of spark plugs were finding their way into Henry Ford’s Model Ts, including “For-A-Ford, Janey Steimetz & Company Flashlight, For 4 One, just to name a few.”

Insulation materials ranged from mica to stone to various kinds of porcelains, the latter of which often failed because of the extreme engine temperatures and porcelain’s porous nature, which allowed them to easily become clogged – an even more frequent event then than today, as early gasoline contained more oils and more closely resembled modern kerosene.

The year 1915 was pivotal. That’s when the Frenchtown Porcelain Company created a type of material that worked well as spark plug insulation material; in 1933, the discovery of silimanite extended the life of the plugs. From about 1900 until the mid-1930s, at least 6,700 spark plug manufacturers put their hand in the game, with more than 2,000 US patents filed on spark plugs, including “lots of gimmicks and gadgets.”

Because so many brands once existed, Ed says that “it’s fun to try to find the huge, the weird looking and the very rare spark plugs. I’m fascinated by their design.” When asked what kind of people are attracted to this type of collecting, he answers, “People who like mechanical things, old cars, old tractors, old hit and miss engines. The gearheads.”

Ed has so many spark plugs that he maintains a small museum full of memorabilia behind the house. “I’m sucked in,” he admits. “It’s addictive.”

Last Collection is Tough to Swallow

Steve Silberberg collects barf bags. Yes, those little bags that, when you can’t get to the bathroom in time, you vomit into. He owns some that were manufactured for use on airplanes, others for use in cars. To be polite and politically correct, you can call them air sickness or car sickness bags, but those nicer names don’t make their purpose any more likely to be appropriate topics at a tea party.

And, while you might think that Steve is the only one with this idea, he shares that there are “about 100 people who collect these bags somewhat seriously,” with “somewhat seriously” defined as having 50 or more bags. “Sure there could be people who have a couple of these bags come their way,” he adds, “but once you get to 50 or more, you have a collection.” (Steve, by the way, has approximately 2,500!)

Like baseball cards and other more socially acceptable collections, Steve trades bags with other collectors around the world. “About one third of the collectors – remember that there about 100 of us – live in Germany, with some living in the United States and others in Great Britain.”

When asked why sickness bags seem to be a more appealing type of collectible to Germans (as compared to other nationalities), Steve has a good explanation. “My opinion,” he says, “is that because a six-week vacation is standard in Germany, they travel a lot. So, to show how great their travels are, some Germans collect these bags.”

Steve has met two other barf bag collectors in person while he lived in Dallas, getting together with them to examine one another’s collections in a restaurant. “We got some interesting looks from the people around us,” he recalls. “I guess a restaurant isn’t a good place to share these types of bags.”

Otherwise, these collectors communicate via the Internet. “I’d love to say we party,” Steve says, “but we’re not the partying type. I was an early adopter of the Internet and I created a website for my collection. So, other collectors would find me. Now, anyone who has a sizable collection creates a web page and we find each other.” They also have a “pretty informal” Yahoo group which, at the time this blog post was being written, had 90 members.

Steve includes photos of his bags on his website; on this page, the top two bags are from Avis Car Rental:

  • The top one is from approximately 1993 and contains their slogan, “We Try Harder”
  • The next one has apparently only been available at the Nassau or Freeport Bahamas airport. Advertising messages include:
    • Call for a sparkling new Plymouth
    • Free unlimited mileage (Steve points out that, although that sounds fantastic, all 700 Bahama Islands put together equal the approximate size of Connecticut)

We at Advance Auto Parts still had two more questions for Steve. First, how do people react when they discover what he collects? And, which barf bag is his favorite?

“I get two different types of reactions,” Steve explains, “and I find them to be a litmus test about whether or not we’ll get along. Some people will be fascinated, perhaps not quite believing me, but finding it pretty cool. Other people have a look on their faces that clearly says “why do you do that??’ and I know that I won’t get along with them quite as well.”

As far as favorites, he lists three (breaking the rule about listing only one favorite but, oh well):

  • Finn Aviation air sickness bag from Finland: “Most of these bags come with written instructions, but this one only has a cubism reindeer that is spewing chunks. It’s pretty cool, a real art piece and, with this bag, there are no language barriers.”
  • MINI Cooper car sickness bag: “This is an advertising piece. Cars don’t automatically come with one.”
  • Space shuttle bag: “This is the highlight of my collection.”

Before we go, we’d like to highlight three parts of Steve’s website that made us smile:

  • Those who donate a bag to the museum become a Patron of Puke
  • Two pieces of barf art are available to enjoy
  • Although we don’t normally highlight items for sale, this site has a “gift shoppe” with a sickness bag poster (it was the “pe” at the end of “shop” that, in conjunction of what is available to purchase, got us to laugh)

As a bonus: here’s the most well-known pop culture moment related to spewing.

What about you? What intriguing car-related items do you collect? What other unique collections have you seen? Share in the comments below.

Spark plugs, a comic book and a smoke bomb

Rural Tales Photo -- NGK_Laser Iridium_Spark Plug_SThe ad in my 1977 comic book promised a smoke bomb that would deliver “surprise as smoke pours from under the hood.” At 13 years old, I thought I knew a lot about cars. My sister would soon pay the price for both misconceptions.

It had been three years since my last ill-conceived prank involving a vehicle. That one hadn’t ended well either. Crab apples littering the ground in woods along the country road, a lone, old pickup driving slowly by, and a dare that I couldn’t hit it helped me learn just how fast an angry adult can chase you down when you mess with their vehicle.

The smoke bomb arrived in the mail, addressed to me and discreetly packaged, as promised. At five inches long, it looked a little like a thin cigar and was wrapped in red, white, and blue paper with two copper wires protruding from the end. The instructions were simple – attach the wires to the vehicle’s spark plugs and watch as panic overtakes the driver when smoke pours from the engine compartment at start up.

I knew how to change spark plugs, or so I thought, so installing the smoke bomb on my sister’s 1974 Ford LTD Country Squire Station Wagon was a snap. When it was time for her to leave for work, I hid in the pine trees, barely able to contain my excitement as I watched the door close and heard the engine start. This was it! Smoke would soon pour from the engine compartment. She’s putting the car in reverse. She’s backing down the driveway. She shifts to drive. Uh-oh. There she goes. No smoke. No one screaming “the car’s on fire!” Nothing, except a letdown, and regret that I didn’t order the “keep on trucking” t-shirt with the big red tongue instead of a stupid smoke bomb that didn’t work. What could possibly have gone wrong?

I removed the smoke bomb from her car the next afternoon and tossed it into my dresser drawer along with other discarded treasures. Little did I know, the fun was just starting. See, I had no idea that it actually mattered which spark plugs were connected to which wires. In the course of installing and removing the smoke bomb, I’m sure I had removed all eight wires and reconnected them in no particular order – something my sister found out later that day, sitting on the side of the road, wondering why the car was running so poorly.

Luckily, she actually knew something about cars, unlike me, and figured out that the plug wires were connected wrong. She fixed them and was on her way. When she came home she asked me about it I confessed to the whole scheme, in part to prevent her from telling my dad and seeing smoke pour from under his lid! That’s when she gave me an education about how to change spark plugs, and that spark plugs, wires and cylinders had to be connected to the proper distributor terminal.

I decided then and there that it would be the end of my car capers—a declaration helped by the impending arrival of Sea Monkeys and Mexican Jumping Beans on yet another order from the back of the comic book.

Now that I know how to replace spark plugs, and that the different types of spark plug metal—such as copper, iridium, and platinum—actually matter, I always think about the smoke bomb that wasn’t…whenever I’m showing someone else how to replace spark plugs.

Editor’s note: Put the comic book down and head on over to Advance Auto Parts for all the best in spark plugs, batteries, brakes and more. Buy online, pick up in store.Gag gifts


Spark Plugs 101

Advance Auto PartsA lot of people come to me for car advice, and here’s one thing I’ve noticed: everyone thinks they know about spark plugs, but almost no one really does. So I decided to make this column all about spark plugs, because trust me, your engine relies on them every day–which means you do, too. That’s why I want you to get familiar with these little buggers. Let’s dive right in with a little Q&A.

What do spark plugs do?

Here’s a fun fact about your engine: unless you’re driving an electric car, in which case this article definitely isn’t for you, you’ve got what’s known as an ICE, which stands for “internal combustion engine.” Now, combustion requires a spark, doesn’t it. See where I’m going with this? Spark plugs are a crucial part of your engine because they’re what makes that combustion happen, both at ignition and while the engine moves through each combustion cycle during operation. When the plugs aren’t doing their job, your engine’s not getting the full combustion benefit, so everything from acceleration and fuel economy to engine smoothness is going to be negatively affected.

How do I know when to replace spark plugs?

My rule of thumb is that if something seems funny about your engine, you should check the spark plugs first. If you’re a hands-off kind of car owner, of course, you’ll just take it to your mechanic and get it diagnosed. But if you want to inspect the plugs yourself, it’s a pretty easy job. Check your owner’s manual to find out where the plugs are located, and then pop the hood and have a look. If the plugs appear dirty, that could mean you’ve got an oil leak or excessive carbon deposits–and if they look damaged, your engine might be running too hot or misfiring.

Keep in mind, though, that even if they look fine, they might be past their prime. Consult your owner’s manual for when to replace spark plugs, too, and if you think you’re past due, I’d recommend replacing them, just to be safe.

Can I replace my own spark plugs?

Now, I said you could check them, but I didn’t say you should try to replace them! Truth is, for a seasoned backyard mechanic, popping the old plugs out and putting new ones in is pretty straightforward. But if you haven’t done it before, you should probably have someone like me looking over your shoulder the first time through. I know the internet’s full of DIY guides on how to change spark plugs, but there’s some serious wrenching going on here–literally. You need a socket wrench, and you may need a specific spark-plug socket and other accessories as well. Plus, there’s a fairly advanced technique called “gapping” that may or may not be required, depending on your vehicle’s age and other factors.

Promise me this: if you do try one of those tutorials on how to change spark plugs, please, wait for the engine to cool off first. I’m talking four hours, minimum. Those plugs are responsible for combustion, remember? Better safe than scalded!

What about cleaning spark plugs?

Here’s where I differ from a lot of DIY-ers. You’ll find various folk remedies for cleaning spark plugs, but for peace of mind, I say just swap ’em out if they’re that dirty. Because how much money are you really saving, right? Twenty bucks? Fifty? Spark plugs are a car owner’s dream, really, because they’re that rare important engine part that’s also inexpensive. If it’s my car, I believe my engine’s worth that kind of investment, every day of the week. Give it the shiny new plugs it deserves.

What do you think?

I’ve seen a few spark plugs in my day, but I’ll be the first to admit, this article isn’t the last word on the subject. Got anything to contribute? See things differently? Chime in with a comment, and help me and everyone else here understand where you’re coming from.


Editor’s note: For more info on these DIY essentials, check out the Resources & Video section at Advance Auto Parts.